The American Historian

Working in the Digital Age: Why Information Technology May Be Re-skilling the Labor Process

Hector Postigo

Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital stands as one of the most generative sociological works of the twentieth century, investigating the shifting power dynamics in the work place. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that it set in motion a host of historical, sociological, and anthropological research seeking to understand work processes and technology’s role therein. Was technology liberating to the worker, or was it the means by which capital ultimately deskilled labor and extracted more profit at the cost of worker power and alienation? Later, David F. Noble’s Forces of Production and America by Design were logical extensions of Braverman’s central thesis. For Noble, all the bells and whistles and efficiency narratives surrounding technology in industrial labor weren’t really serving workers; they were serving the logic of capital. They are the “master’s tools,” after all.[1]

Those perspectives by some of the great historians and sociologists of twentieth-century labor processes do appear awfully pessimistic. Aren’t we supposed to be celebrating the liberating elements of the inexorable march of technological progress? Maybe, but things in history or sociology are seldom exactly as they seem. The outcomes of technological change for any social process are always “in the making” and plagued by tensions between their positive and negative potential and uses. Certainly this seems to be the case given technological change and labor during the turn to the post-industrial society. Emerging global markets, flexible accumulation, and just-in-time production had many workers scrambling to reinterpret what skills were valuable for the labor processes taking shape in the brave new post-modern world.[2]

Recently the economist Paul Krugman noted that the theory of “skill-based technological change,” which during the onset of globalization and the subsequent information communication technology (ICT) revolution had attracted powerful adherents like Robert Reich, turned out to be a red herring. The idea that information skills were becoming the most valuable drove many to acquire them. While ICTs were indeed redefining marketable labor skills, it turns out that change has not really resulted in increased pay. Reich and others appear to rightly blame unchecked monopoly capital.[3]

The idea that digital labor means some form of skillful but highly undervalued work does correlate with the conclusion that something is amiss with “skill-based technological change” theories about what may be the valuable labor skills of the information revolution. When it comes to digital labor in particular, however, there may be more to say about the definitions of skills and their value. Yes, unchecked markets are likely to blame for stagnant wages, but their methods don’t seem to be deskilling labor processes through automation as Braverman and others might have surmised. For digital labor and its products, they often require highly skilled work in information management, design, social engineering, and more. So is it monopoly capital keeping that work unpaid? Perhaps, but it’s also digital labor’s intangible nature that makes it easy for businesses harnessing it to devalue or interpret the work as “community,” “volunteering,” or “fandom.”

What is intangible about digital labor output is what makes it easy for businesses to shrug their shoulders and say, “it’s not really work” and forgo discussion about a fair wage and job security. Information products are useful for tangible outcomes in the material world, for example, but one cannot actually hold information in the way one holds a television or a suit. No one volunteers to make a suit or TV show and then just gives it away because they wanted to, right? What is also intangible is most of digital labor. It is, as Tizziana Terranova and a host of scholars from the autonomia movement would say, “immaterial labor.”[4]

Terranova’s treatment of “immaterial labor” on the web as part of the “social factory” certainly could serve as a beginning exploration of the idea that what we do in digital networks is some form of labor. The crux of her point is not that labor is changing because of deskilling or automation, as Braverman or Noble would have argued, but rather it is changing as a result of businesses capturing social processes in capital’s production and mass consumption logic. For media scholars this is not too different from what Dallas Smythe, Sut Jahlly, and others have noted about audiences as laboring for the media industries. For me, a generative case for thinking about digital labor and its immateriality has been that of America Online (AOL) and its volunteer communities since 1999.[5]

AOL was ahead of its time in ways we have not yet come to understand fully. Hindsight is 20/20, and one could reasonably argue that the AOL platform was the first social network. The features that made AOL a powerful social network platform were the ability to communicate in chat rooms (virtual text based conversation channels) and users’ ability to scroll through user profiles as one scrolls through Facebook profiles today. But because bandwidths were small, terms of service enforcing algorithms were cumbersome, communication was rapidly happening, and big data were still too big, AOL needed people to monitor and foster communities that added value to its menu of online experiences. So it turned to volunteers. Those volunteers were called “guides” or “community leaders,” and for their volunteering they received access to AOL services free of charge. Not a bad deal for volunteering at a time when AOL’s pricing structure was based on the time a user spent online. When AOL transitioned to flat fees the incentive was not as powerful; yet they still volunteered. The change in their workload, however, made their volunteering start to feel like a job. Some sued AOL and asked the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to investigate the company for unfair labor practices; they even called for a “strike.”[6]

While the DOL interviewed volunteers to determine whether there was an actionable case, the class action lawsuit Hellesey et al. vs. AOL Inc. lumbered along in the courts. Finally in 2010 the parties settled the case for a fifteen million dollar payout to former volunteers, and the AOL case was more or less set to fall into the annals of legal and labor history. But then AOL’s new parent company, The Huffington Post, was served a similar lawsuit by some of its many bloggers. Like many laws that once were clearly delineated by the context of space and medium (e.g. privacy law and copyright law), labor law will soon find itself in that same conundrum. However, in the Huffington Post case, the alleged employer won based primarily on the “volunteering” narrative. U.S. District Judge John Koelt was quoted in Reuters as saying “no one forced” them to blog.[7] As willing contributors they knowingly worked for free and were therefore not entitled to any settlement.

We must return to the notion of immateriality in the digital labor process to make sense of why businesses either a) willfully turn a blind eye to how they embrace exploiting digital labor via the narratives of “community” or “volunteering”; or b) fail to understand that they are reaping huge value from people who, if they did that same work in any other medium, would be classified as employees. I would surmise that, for the most part, it’s the former case and the lessons from AOL can be used to sort out the institutional use of volunteer or user generated content (UGC) producing labor forces.

YouTube, for example, has a model that seems more accepting of digital labor when users volunteer to contribute work products, be it community management or videos. In the case of YouTube, many users who are unaffiliated with a mass media brand and whose content falls under the category of UGC manage large audiences, foster community, and regularly produce valuable content. YouTube uses ad revenue sharing programs that foster production and transfer some earnings to very productive users. The partnership is contractual and not ideal for dependable income, but it’s working for some who have turned to UCG production as a springboard to create a media enterprise.[8] What makes it less than ideal is its precarious nature. If one user’s content falls from favor among audiences, then revenue can decline quickly. YouTube’s system of sharing ad profits evolved slowly over the past seven years. At first a user had to be approached by the company based on his or her proven success and offered a partner contract. Now, the ad sharing program is part of any content maker’s relationship with YouTube, although ad revenues can vary from user to user based on the content’s popularity.[9]

Are the labor processes for UGC providers automated on YouTube? Is there some form of deskilling? Are the platform’s backend features being used to exploit free labor more effectively? Oddly, the answer to the first two questions is no, in my opinion. Based on six years of research on YouTube video game commentary communities, I documented a host of new skills being developed in situ by young men and women figuring out how to produce content and use YouTube’s algorithms to make their content more visible. Ultimately, video game content succeeded to the extent that YouTube spun out the whole video game viewership genre into its own independent platform.[10]

There is some automation, sure, but not in video production processes that are the bulk of the work done by this community of UGC creators. As such, the platform relies heavily on the skills that these users bring to the table. Unlike AOL who either didn’t see the skill of community management as worthy of pay or knowingly skirted labor laws, YouTube knows UGC value implicitly. YouTube encourages channel owners to engage with subscribers by giving them connectivity to Facebook and Twitter. One would think that YouTube would see these platforms as competitors in the UGC market. Perhaps, but it also sees them as tools that help UGC providers engage their audiences.

The technologies used for the whole of distribution and audience maintenance are integral to both the skill set and the business model on any platform that harnesses UGC of one form or another. Technology, in YouTube’s case, seems to serve two masters, sometimes beyond YouTube’s expectations and intentions. Ultimately it’s the backend data analysis that remains nebulous. One can only presume that since YouTube is a Google company, data is widely collected on viewers and UGC providers. So while the labor processes appear to be generally in the hands of UGC makers on YouTube, the value extraction process and strategy are not entirely revealed nor are their outcomes shared with UCG makers.

The YouTube model is not unique to digital labor and ICT platforms. Twitch TV, Machinima.com, and Justin TV were early adopters of a contract that defined the labor relationship with their users, one that went beyond defaulting to the narratives that drove AOL’s missteps with its volunteers. Mechanical Turk and other crowdsource labor markets are also early adopters and users have flocked to them for the opportunity of using technologies that may allow them a closer sense of ownership in their work, especially in the media industries.[11] However, engagements in these sorts of labor remain precarious and subject to platform owners’ long term vision for profitability. The Huffington Post, Reddit, and Buzzfeed all profit from UGC of different types, yet ad revenue sharing or other contract models are not part of their modus operandi.

All told, over the last twenty years in some quarters of the information economy we’ve not seen deskilling or automation as we may have expected. The struggle over the value of a worker’s output and the processes of extraction continue in the form of nebulous backend data valuation models, precarity, and reasonable profit sharing in the context of a contract. But it’s not exactly what Braverman, Noble, and others anticipated.

[1] Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (1974). David F. Noble, Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (1984); David F. Noble, America by Design (1977). Audre Lorde’s oft quoted essay is referenced here in recognition of the underlying, great conundrum of struggle faced by all disenfranchised peoples. That often those with little power are left to stand against oppression while working within the very structures that oppress. See Audre Lorde and Cheryl Clarke, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (2007).

[2] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (1990).

[3] Paul Krugman, “Challenging the Oligarchy,” New York Review of Books, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/12/17/robert-reich-challenging-oligarchy/; Robert Reich, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism (1992). Robert Reich, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, not the Few (2015).

[4] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (2000); Tizziana Terranova, “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy,” Social Text, 18 (Summer 2000), 33–58.

[5] Christian Fuchs, “Dallas Smythe Today: the Audience Commodity, the Digital Labour Debate, Marxist Political Economy, and Critical Theory; Prolegomena to a Digital Labour Theory of Value,” triple C: Cognition, Communication, Co-Operation, 10 (July, 2012), 692–740; Sut Jhally, “Probing the Blindspot: The Audience Commodity,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 6 (Winter–Spring 1982), 204–210; Dallas Smythe, “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 1 (Fall 1977), 1–27; Dallas Smythe, “On the Audience as Commodity,” in Media and Cultural Studies (2001). Hector Postigo, “Emerging Sources of Labor on the Internet: The Case of American Online Volunteers,” International Review of Social History, 48 (Dec. 2003), 205–223; Hector Postigo, “American Online Volunteers: Lessons from an Early Co-production Community,” International Journal of Cultural Studies, 12 (Sept. 2009), 451–469.

[6] Postigo, “Emerging Sources of Labor on the Internet.”

[7] Readers should know that I once co-authored a piece for the Huff Post Tech blog but I am not a regular contributor. Therefore, I am not part of that initiative. Jonathan Stempel, “Unpaid Bloggers’ Lawsuit Versus Huffington Post Tossed,” Reuters, March 30, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-aol-huffingtonpost-bloggers-idUSBRE82T17L20120330.

[8] Hector Postigo, “The Socio-technical Architecture of Digital Labor: Converting Play into YouTube Money,” New Media and Society (Feb. 2016), 332–49.

[9] Todd Spangler, “YouTube Standardizes Ad-Revenue Split for All Partners, but Offers Upside Potential,” Variety, Nov. 1, 2013, http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/youtube-standardizes-ad-revenue-split-for-all-partners-but-offers-upside-potential-1200786223/.

[10] Hayden Dingman, “YouTube Gaming Launching Today to Challenge Twitch’s Livestreaming Dominance,” PCWorld, Aug. 26, 2015, http://www.pcworld.com/article/2975731/software-games/youtube-gaming-launches-today-to-challenge-twitchs-livestreaming-dominance.html.

[11] Brooke Erin Duffy, Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age (2013).